Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota is home to approximately 260 elk. According to National Park Service (NPS) biologists, the park’s elk carrying capacity is in the 300-500 range so it’s easy to assume that park officials would want the Wind Cave elk population to grow. Instead NPS officials are actively trying to reduce the herd through a culling program and are asking hunters to help. The reason for the cull: to fight the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
CWD is present in the Wind Cave elk herd at a much higher than typical rate for wild elk. In 2002 when the always-fatal neurological disease was first detected at the park, the infection rate was estimated at 3 percent (about average for wild elk populations), but by 2010 as much as 10 percent of the park’s had become infected. The rate is now nearly 14 percent.
According to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) Senior Wildlife Biologist Chad Lehman, "That’s extremely high. If you have 13 percent mortality from chronic wasting disease, that's a declining elk herd."
Clearly the problem wasn’t going to get better without drastic action. And that is where South Dakota hunters come into play. Last month the NPS put out a call for volunteer hunters to help with the management cull. It’s the second year in a row the NPS has used volunteer hunters and is similar to a culling program in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
In 2009 an elk management plan was developed at Wind Cave to try and get a handle on the disease impacting the herd. Beginning last winter volunteer hunters were asked to reduce the herd by 262 animals, which could then be tested for CWD. This year another three dozen elk will be targeted. The ultimate goal is to measure the rate of infection and stop the spread of the disease by thinning the herd.
While much is still unknown about CWD, one thing that wildlife biologists do know is that herd density is a direct and additive cause to infection rates. Animals that are crammed together in their habitat spread transmissible diseases more quickly so dispersing the elk should slow the progression of CWD at Wind Cave.
According to a recent NPS release, “National Park Staff will direct volunteers as to which elk to shoot. The focus will be to remove both cows and bulls based on the needs of the study, which are dictated by sex, age and elk location in the park.”
Hunters do not get to keep the elk taken during this cull. The NPS says that “meat from any elk testing positive for CWD will be destroyed. Volunteers who participate will, however, have the opportunity to accept elk meat from an animal that has tested ‘not positive’ for CWD.”
The remaining elk meat will be distributed through the hunger relief organization Feeding South Dakota. Last year almost 7 tons of elk meat from the Wind Cave cull went to families in need via the program.
To participate in the cull, volunteer hunters must be physically fit and qualify through a shooting proficiency test at the range before they are permitted to go afield with NPS biologists. Last year qualification entailed firing five shots at an 8-inch target at 200 yards and hitting it with at least three of the five shots. Obviously the NPS could hire sharpshooters to alleviate wildlife problems as they did at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge National Historical Park and at the Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, but sharpshooters are expensive while hunters will do the job for free. Since most South Dakota big game hunters are familiar with shooting at similar ranges and in similar, often windy conditions, the choice to use volunteer hunters is a sound one that worked well in 2017.
All elk harvested last year as part of the cull were taken from the field whole to prevent spread of CWD. The carcasses were moved to an on-site processing facility so necessary samples could be taken. Elk that tested positive were destroyed immediately, and elk that did not have CWD were processed and distributed.
In addition to the Wind Cave cull, Custer State Park, which is adjacent to Wind Cave, is trying to reduce its elk herd by issuing extra elk tags to hunters. In a KOTA TV report, South Dakota GFP’s Chad Lehman said, "The first objective is to lower the density of elk on the southern portion of Custer State Park… . And the second primary reason is for chronic wasting disease concerns. Wind Cave National Park has just come out with some data that suggests the rate of chronic wasting disease could be 14 to 16 percent and we have elk in our pasture that came out of Wind Cave National Park and we're concerned about the high prevalence of disease in that elk herd."
The 2018 Wind Cave culling operation will occur over two weeks in February: Feb. 5-9 and Feb. 12-16. The volunteer hunters say they want to take part in the cull to do their part in helping to stem the CWD tide rolling though Wind Cave’s elk herd.
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Editor's Note: In giving credit where it is due, the fact that the NPS is involving American hunters in NPS ungulate culling operations—whether to fight CWD or to address ungulate overpopulations—is all thanks to the NRA and SCI. As reported by NRAHLF.org in 2016,for years the NRA and SCI have pressed the NPS to allow hunters to assist with culling on national park lands only to have it dig in its heels in favor of paying contract sharpshooters and federal personnel—partly to avoid battling the antis over allowing "hunting" within park boundaries. The NPS also claimed that using citizen volunteers would be illegal and that the process would be costly to manage. Under continued pressure from the NRA and SCI, the NPS conducted a study on the two national parks where citizen volunteers had been used in elk culling operations: Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in Colorado and Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) in North Dakota. So imagine its pleasant surprise in March 2016 when the study report found that the use of hunter volunteers in culling operations on NPS units is legal, cost effective and a great idea.
"I started championing the use of hunters in national parks 10 or more years ago, if not longer," said NRA's Susan Recce, director of NRA-ILA's Conservation, Wildlife and Natural Resources, in addressing the NPS’ recent about-face in 2016. "I was delighted when Anna Seidman, director of litigation with SCI, and I joined forces. We have worked together in drafting joint as well as separate comments on a number of management plans addressing elk and whitetail deer overpopulations in national parks."
To read the full story, “Federal Report Says Hunter Volunteers Are Ideal Citizen Wildlife Managers for National Park Game-Culling Operations,” click here.